Climorality: The Moral Obligation to Change


These images of Lake Oahe show the reservoir on April 4, 2005, (top) compared to the level on May 18, 2000 (bottom). The Missouri River runs through the center of the images in a dark blue line. In both images, vegetation appears in shades of red, while bare or sparsely vegetated ground are in shades of green (May 18 image) or tan (April 4 image). The already-thin reservoir has shrunk dramatically in the four years between the images. NASA

If any benefit can spin out of a disaster as devastating as Hurricane Sandy, the increasing discussions about climate change may be it. 

“When island people come to us saying that their island will disappear" and that shifts to major American cities becoming unsustainable, "sections of them uninhabitable, that will change the discourse,” says Laurie Zoloth, bioethicist and religious scholar at Northwestern University.

When the streets flood and the lights go out in one of the richest cities on the planet, the world suddenly becomes a lot more talkative.

“The world didn’t pay much attention when 20 million were flooded from their homes in Pakistan in 2010, when Bangkok was submerged last year, or when Manila overflowed with chest-high water last summer,” writes Bill McKibben, co-founder of, in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. He's on a national tour to spread the world on climate change and Chicago is his next stop this Wednesday. 

But even as discourse rises with the sea levels, as politicians and scientists discuss the impacts of a changing climate and what can be done about it, a major question alluded to by President Barack Obama hangs in midair.

“I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions and, as a consequence, I think we have an obligation to future generations to do something about it,” said President Obama towards the end of his press conference earlier this month.

But why do we have an obligation to future generations to do something about it? It is the ‘why’ that seems to be absent in public discourse. But it may just be that the answers to the ‘why’ sorts of questions, the ethical questions regarding climate change, that may fill in the absence to an issue that, even in the wake of Sandy, still lacks the fervor to motivate the actions that we are supposedly obliged to undertake.

“I do think that climate change is the most important ethical issue of our time,” Zoloth says. “To think about climate change is to think globally – it’s to think about global poverty and wealth distribution and it’s a discussion that you can’t talk about without talking about where the power lies in all levels, both carbon-based power and political power.”

Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth detailing the moral implications of climate change driven by human activities. Matt Rhodes/MEDILLBioethicist Laurie Zoloth detailing the moral implications of climate change driven by human activities. Matt Rhodes/MEDILL

Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth detailing the moral implications of climate change driven by human activities. Matt Rhodes/MEDILL

The issue becomes one of power, literally. The people who have the most political power to make climate change a political priority are also the same people who use the most energy power that contribute to carbon dioxide emissions.

China, the United States and the European Union account for 56 percent of the world’s CO2 dioxide emissions that result from burning fossil fuels and are driving climate change.

“In very broad terms, the losers are either very poor people in hot places now or people who haven’t been born yet,” says geoscientist Richard Alley, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. 

“Right now, if you actually make a plot on who’s causing climate change, it’s the wealthier people in colder places, and who’s vulnerable to climate change are poor people in hot places.”

This raises the question of fairness. “There’s this really big golden rule issue that comes up,” Alley says. “Are we really doing unto others as we would have them do unto us?”

Increasing frequency of hurricanes, floods and droughts and increasing risks of severe weather – predicted by climate change models – are happening now. But worse is yet to come.

The newly released World Bank report on climate change, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided, places ethical dimensions as a central factor. 

“Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today,” says Jim Yong Kim, World Bank Group President. “Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”

This moral responsibility can be derived from the notion that all people have an inherent dignity that ought to be respected – a notion that is at the foundation of many of the international rights documents. These include The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in response to atrocities committed during World War II.

“We live now in an international order that really prizes the notion of the inherent dignity of all people,” argues Darrel Moellendorf, philosopher at San Diego State University and author of the upcoming book, "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change: Values and Policy." “Imposing these tremendous risks on people, not only the risks but the uncertainty of catastrophic sorts of things happening, isn’t really consistent with taking seriously this idea that people possess this inherent dignity.”

And what kinds of catastrophes are we already seeing and sowing for our descendants and the poor? “The inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production, potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems,” Kim writes in the forward to the World Bank’s report.

The Climate Vulnerability Monitor report projects 400,000 annual deaths including nearly 1,000 per day because of climate change, especially drought. The 50 scientists and policy experts who penned the report conclude that inaction towards climate change will make it the “leading global cause of death.”

With respect to future generations, it’s easy to argue, ‘Well, why ought I lower my quality of life to help people who don’t even exist yet? I’ll be long dead and besides, what did future people ever do for me?’

“Of course future people didn’t do anything for you. You didn’t do anything for the past either,” Zoloth argues. Not all relationships are reciprocal and this is an example of one. You’re given a world by the people who came before you and you honor them because they didn’t spoil it for you.”

Zoloth maintains that the moral obligation not only extends to the people of the future that don’t yet exist but primarily to the people who did exist in the past and sacrificed their lives for our benefit. For her, it’s a matter of respect and honoring those who came before you.

“We’re really glad people fought against Hitler; I wasn’t alive and they could have just said, ‘Whatever. Why get shot? I’m not political,’ or whatever. The same thing with the civil rights movement and the people who worked so hard for them on behalf of their children and on behalf of future generations,” Zoloth argues.

It’s also a matter of basic fairness. 

Completely changing the planet without considering the interests of future generations is like making a business deal with someone who’s not sitting at the table – they don’t have the ability to speak for themselves or object to the terms of the decision, says geoscientist Jeff Sevringhaus, professor at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“In general, we should avoid doing things that essentially place a tax on them, like emitting CO2 now that they will have to deal with later because of the fact that it stays up there for a couple hundred years. It’s passing the buck,” Sevringhaus argues.

Protecting future generations and the least advantaged is a start. But there's more at stake. 

“The other consideration has to do with the affects of climate change on the natural world,” Moellendorf explains. “Here, what we’re worried about is this massive extinction of species that climate change is expected to bring about – a tremendous loss of biodiversity.”

Warning of the innumerable dangers that will come with a 4°C (7°F) warmer world, the World Bank reports that climate change will likely become the dominant driver of ecosystem shifts, surpassing habitat destruction as the largest threat to biodiversity.

“Global warming is going to cause a lot of extinctions,” Sevringhaus says. Causing a whole species to go extinct has got to be unethical because you’re not allowing a whole group of organisms to be present in the future.”

The destruction of biodiversity is wrong for its own sake, argues both Moellendorf and Sevringhaus, but ultimately loops back to our own self-destruction in the natural world where all things are connected.

“We all have a responsibility to be concerned about the fate of our species and the fate of all of Earth’s species because we are all part of the same ecosystem,” says Aaron Putnam, postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

For example, take the rise in ocean acidification due to CO2 emissions and the effect that is having, and will continue to have, on the coral reefs. 

“Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of ecosystem services on which society depends,” the World Bank reports.

Coral reefs aren’t just aesthetically pleasing for scuba divers and snorkelers. They provide protection against coastal floods, storm surges and wave damage as well as nursery grounds and habitat for many fish species, the World Bank Reports. 

“The regional extinction of entire coral reef ecosystems, which could occur well before 4°C is reached, would have profound consequences for their dependent species and for the people who depend on them for food, income, tourism and shoreline protection,” according to the report. 

The math and ethics of global warming add up to a single score - self-preservation and preservation of the ecosystem are one and the same.


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